The papacy in a post-political world

How the Pope became an all-purpose Ethical Prince of international relations.

Philip Cunliffe

Topics Politics

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Even before the ascent of Pope Benedict XVI to the throne of St Peter, commentators observed that any new Pope would find it difficult to live up to the legacy of his predecessor. Judging by the ostentatious global grief that attended the last Pope’s funeral, John Paul II has come to personify a new model of global leadership.

Leftist commentators were quick to flag up John Paul’s authoritarianism, by pointing out how his campaign against world communism led to the suppression of liberation theology in Latin America and the rolling back of the liberal legacy of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s (1). But this well-rehearsed attack ignores the role that John Paul played in world politics since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – the 15 years that made up the greatest part of his papacy.

The end of the Cold War overturned the principles that had governed states and societies for half a century. The Catholic Church was also profoundly disoriented by the end of the Cold War. Abruptly deprived of its atheist foe, and having destroyed its own progressive wing, the Church had to remake itself for a new era. The breadth and depth of the church’s reach, its role in the last decade of the Cold War, and the pressure it felt to remould itself, all meant that it was ideally placed to act as a lightning rod for many of the ideas and themes that dominated post-Cold War politics.

During the Cold War, international politics was seen as the definitive realm of realpolitik where leaders ruthlessly pursued the national interest. This was a model of leadership based on the prescriptions of the Renaissance humanist Niccòlo Machiavelli in his famous tract The Prince (a work that earned Machiavelli the undying enmity of the Catholic Church). After 1989, Western elites were no longer able to define national interests through the ideological framework of the Cold War. In the search for a new framework that could give meaning to the exercise of power, Western elites attempted to reconstruct foreign policy around ethical issues such as human rights.

Human rights diplomacy was based on the notion that a government was morally bound not just to assert the interests of its own citizens, but also to defend the rights of individuals throughout the world. Human rights promised a world order that could transcend grubby realpolitik. But as governments no longer claimed to be acting only on behalf of their own electorates, human rights diplomacy undermined notions of accountability and representative democracy. In short, being responsible for all entailed being accountable to none. The eclipse of nation states and Machiavellian realpolitik was further confirmed by the rise of what some observers called ‘global civil society’ – such as NGOs and the anti-capitalist movement.

With its social foundations eroded by collapsing religious observance in the citadels of global Catholicism (Italy, Ireland, Spain and Latin America), the church was forced to remodel itself as a more buoyant organisation, more akin to a ‘global civil society’ movement like anti-capitalism than a venerable world religion. Like the anti-capitalist protestors at Genoa and Seattle, John Paul II denounced ‘unbridled capitalism’ and championed debt relief for poor countries (2). Like those NGOs that claim to ‘represent’ marginalised indigenous peoples, he claimed to speak ‘in the name of those who have no voice’ (3). John Paul II also earned praise for his interventions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – another favoured arena of ‘global civil society’ activists.

Arguably, John Paul’s greatest diplomatic triumphs were the most frothy: his ‘apology’ for Christian persecution of Jews across the centuries, his attempts to heal the ancient schism with the Orthodox Church. While John Paul’s personality cult grew and grew in the stratosphere of ethical statesmanship, the institutional fabric of the church was torn apart – as exemplified by the deeply damaging scandals over sexual abuse by Catholic priests in America.

Bemused by the colossal numbers of mourners at John Paul’s funeral, some commentators ironically repeated Soviet tyrant Josef Stalin’s derisory remark, ‘How many divisions does the Pope have?’. Judging by the numbers of world leaders attending the funeral, all the armies in the world couldn’t give even an elected leader the moral authority that John Paul II achieved in death. In an era in which political leaders have struggled to grasp at more ethereal, less accountable forms of political legitimacy beyond the nation state, the late Pope came to embody the ideals of post-Cold War statesmanship – an ethical Prince for a post-political age.

Oxford University professor Timothy Garton Ash gushed that ‘Pope John Paul II was the first world leader. We talk of Bush, Blair or Hu Jintao as “world leaders”, but they are merely national leaders who have a world impact.… [John Paul] was the head of the world’s largest supranational organisation of individual human beings’ (4). Unencumbered by the governmental machinery of a nation state, freed by the decline of even his own flock, John Paul II could practice ethical statesmanship in its purest form, on a level only dreamt of by the likes of Tony Blair.

As political ideologies can no longer mobilise masses of people, doubtless many of the political leaders attending John Paul’s funeral hoped that they could partake in the transnational community of grief that bonded so many millions across borders and continents. But such opportunism is ill-advised. Like any other form of post-national solidarity, the ‘strength’ of post-modern Catholicism only reflects the weakness of traditional mechanisms of social cohesion. Even in sub Saharan Africa, the only region where Catholic numbers are growing, Catholicism registers the erosion of attachments to the nation state, and the decline of local traditions such as animism (5).

While John Paul II may be fast-tracked to eternal sainthood, the ‘Universal Church’ is in terminal decline. Similarly, while Western politicians may sooth their consciences through launching human rights crusades, these do little to address the concerns of us more humble folk, who are left behind to deal with the merely profane problems of domestic politics.

Philip Cunliffe studies international relations at King’s College, University of London.

(1) ‘The Pope has blood on his hands’, Terry Eagleton, Guardian, 4 April 2005

(2) ‘The first world leader’, Timothy Garton Ash, Guardian, 4 April 2005

(3) ‘The first world leader’, Timothy Garton Ash, Guardian, 4 April 2005

(4) ‘The first world leader’, Timothy Garton Ash, Guardian, 4 April 2005

(5) See ‘Four Rebels and a Funeral: Why the Church is Congo’s most respected institution’, The Economist, 15 July 2004; and ‘The future of the church’, The Economist, 9 April 2005

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Topics Politics


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